Palestinians gleeful as road is opened

SURDA, WEST BANK — SURDA, West Bank - The man with the old white horse and buggy stood by the side of the road yesterday and watched the cars speed by. Occasionally, passengers would lean from their windows and gleefully shout, "One shekel."

That was what Nawras Abu Laly used to charge - less than 25 cents - to ride in his rickety carriage through the Israeli army checkpoint that divided the city of Ramallah from dozens of villages to the north.


Yesterday, as part of a series of steps to build confidence in Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and advance a U.S.-backed peace plan, Israel dismantled the Surda checkpoint and another one close by, allowing cars to pass through for the first time in nearly three years.

Laly, 37, and his horse, Eid, were promptly put out of work.


"And I'm happy about it," said Lalay, who has a wife and three children to feed. He used to earn about $50 a day ferrying 150 people along the 2-mile stretch from which cars had been barred.

"I would like to see all the roads open," Laly said as he packed up his gear and urged his horse to pull the empty cart away from where the checkpoint had been. "These barriers weren't supposed to be here in the first place."

Israeli officials announced Friday that the checkpoints would come down, and soldiers used cranes yesterday to remove concrete barriers hours before Prime Minister Ariel Sharon left for a meeting with President Bush tomorrow in Washington.

Also yesterday, Sharon's Cabinet approved the release of members of the Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, reluctantly expanding the number of detainees eligible for release to meet the demands of Palestinian officials.

Israeli newspapers reported last night that officials aboard Sharon's plane said that 210 Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants would be among those released, along with 210 members of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction and more than 100 jailed for criminal offenses.

Palestinian officials say such gestures are needed to preserve a fragile cease-fire and to support the belief that negotiating is better than fighting. Overall, though, Palestinians complained that yesterday's moves mean little.

But for tens of thousands of Palestinians living in rural villages without large stores or hospitals, the removal of the Surda checkpoint changes the way they were trained to live for the past three years. They can now reach the bustling streets of Ramallah, the West Bank's political and commercial hub, in minutes instead of hours.

Surda's checkpoint had become a city unto itself. Vendors hawked ice cream, newspapers, fruit and toys to the throngs waiting in the hot sun as heavily armed soldiers checked identifications, one by one.


The checkpoint had sparked enterprise, such as Laly's horse-drawn carriage, and prompted the building of apartments in rural farm towns to house students and professors from Ramallah who couldn't make it to class on time at Birzeit University about five miles north because of the makeshift border.

Palestinians had complained that the Surda checkpoint was unneeded because it did not separate Israel from the West Bank, but split Palestinian communities. Humiliation, not security, they often said, was the reason for the barrier.

An Israeli army officer who spoke on condition of anonymity said in an interview that the checkpoint had been set up to prevent Palestinian militants from transporting guns and bombs to Ramallah, which borders northern Jerusalem.

"We are taking a risk by doing this," the officer said. "But we feel that taking a step like this is very important so that the Palestinian population sees that we are serious about easing their conditions. If they will do their part, we will do ours."

Israeli soldiers took down the checkpoint in a few minutes, and Palestinian youths relished the opportunity to help push barriers away, actions that might have gotten them shot only a few days before.

By early afternoon, the road was clear and passable, though lined with trash. The merchants had gone, as had the long lines of people. There wasn't much to look at, except for the happy faces of the people driving by.


Hundreds of parked cars still lined the road, left by morning commuters who had arrived when the roadblock was still in place. They returned yesterday afternoon to a pleasant surprise.

"It is nice to see the Israelis gone, but they should be out of this place altogether, not just here," said Dr. Khamid Tamimi, 48, an orthopedic surgeon who had to pass through the checkpoint on foot twice a day on his way to and from Ramallah Hospital.

"But it doesn't mean anything," he said. "So they opened a road. Tomorrow you might find an Israeli jeep here. The next day, there might be a checkpoint on another road."